Angels Unaware

When I began to write this blog, I misspelled the title of this blog with “Angers” instead of “Angels,” which is what I intended to write. This mistake seemed to fit with the essence of what I have to say about “angels,” not “angers.” It makes me wonder if anger and angels are opposites that are sometimes mistaken for each other….

The quote comes from the New Testament book of Hebrews (13.2) in which the author suggests that gifts are to be given generously because the recipient of such a gift might be someone special. The exact quote is, “Don’t neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” This verse follows the first verse in the chapter where the author suggests that we love the people we already know, now adding that it might be good to love people that we don’t know. It is interesting that the book of Hebrews is the only biblical written by an anonymous author.

Deb and I have not so much been the givers of hospitality to strangers, but having been the recipients of hospitality as strangers, perhaps to “angels unaware.” These “angels” are yet in our minds and hearts, perhaps forever, but certainly over the past three months, months that have been ones of grieving, sharing grief, recovering from grief, and certainly not entirely finishing grief over the loss of our daughter, Krissie who died on August 21st of this year. Allow me to tell you of some of these “angels.” I must admit I am unsure of the order of these appearances, but perhaps there is no “order” to such things that are heavenly sent.

Deb and I, “low boundary” (P people for those of you familiar with the Myers-Briggs) as we are, took a trip “west” a few weeks ago. We told our friends that we were going “west,” which usually led to “where,” to which we usually responded in repetition, “West.” Again, some people found it necessary to ask, “West, where?” to which we responded again with “West.” Yes, we wanted to go “west” but had no idea of “where west” or how far west. We weren’t entirely sure we were going west, but had concluded that we would travel on one of our favorite roads, U.S. Highway 2 that runs just south of the Canada border crossing various states along the way. We had wanted to visit several spots, one or two in particular and started in northern Minnesota.

It was in this very special spot near Bemidji, MN where we had perhaps the richest “angel experience.” Just south of Bemidji you can visit a state park that includes the headwaters of the Mississippi River. This is quite fun because the Great River actually starts with a one foot waterfall that is about 20 feet across, so you can “walk across the Mississippi River” if you want to do so. Deb and I spent some delightful time at the headwaters, then headed back to park station to check for books and such and while heading out towards the car Deb said “I am not done, let’s go back and cross the waters”. So, we did, and again, it was great. We then decided to talk a short walk on one of the trails which, of course, in the autumn was rick in scent and color. As we neared the path to the waters. one of us, we don’t know which, said out loud what the other was obviously thinking and feeling – this would be a wonderful place to “let some of Krissie go”. It wasn’t even an agreement, it was more of a spontaneous spiritual discovery, and so I went back to the car to get some of Krissie’s cremains. As I came back to the headwaters, Deb greeted me and said she had found just the place. Whether due to our spontaneity or by God’s design for us, when we got to the headwaters with Krissie in hand, there was the angel unaware. We were unaware that she was an angel and I doubt she knew that she was an angel. Deb looked around briefly for someone who might be willing to take some picture and spotted a woman who was just standing near the pool and went up to her and inquired “might I ask a favor? Would you take a picture of us, our daughter died and…” before Deb could finish her explanation of intent, the woman put her hands to her heart, began crying and then fully embraced Deb with a lingering hug. Then with me beside her, she looked at both of us and exclaimed “I am so sorry for your great loss”. “Thank you for asking me, it is such a privilege to do this with you”. She took Deb’s phone and we waded into the waters holding hands.  We each let Krissie go and then still hand in hand, we both let some of her go simultaneously.  We cried and hugged in the water, in fact forgetting that an angel was there for us.  When we came back out of the water, this picture-taking, hug-giving, compassionate angel handed back our phone and again, said “thank for this honor to be a part of your daughter’s journey”. We were hugged again by this picture-taking, hug-giving, compassionate angel and departed having been the recipient of this angel unawares. We know not her name, her face, nor her station in life. Perhaps she has a heavenly station.

Deb and I had a somewhat similar encounter when we were hiking on a trail not far from our “up north” cabin, a  hike that we had many times  taken with Krissie and her children over the many years we had the pleasure of Krissie and her children at the  cabin. Again, we were scattering some of Krissie over a much larger waterfall, this time in northern Wisconsin. After we scattered Krissie, a young woman, observing our embraces inquired if it would be too much of an intrusion if she took our picture for us, commenting on our tenderness. Again, Deb engaged her with appreciation and began to explain “Yes, please, that would mean more than you can know, we just let some of our daughter’s ashes go…”  the words were barely out of her mouth before that young woman, Erica, immediately spoke to her friend about 15 feet away, “Ashely, come, we need to pray!” Ashley didn’t even blink an eye, came right up and followed Erica’s lead, forming a foursome of hand holding. These two women, probably close to Krissie’s age, prayed for us and for Krissie and all who loved and knew her. Again, we don’t know much about these two praying angels, but we know they ministered to us in ways unfathomable.  Ashely and Erica, along with the woman at the headwaters will forever be in our hearts.

I was walking out of my office a few weeks ago, walking a bit slower now, and was nearly at the door of the lobby that enters the stairway to the outside of the office building. As I walked by, a friendly older woman looked up at me, smiled, and wished me a good evening.” That small gesture somehow affected me emotionally as I started to walk downstairs, but then I found that I needed to return to the third floor and “finish” this encounter. So I did just that, walked upstairs, opened the lobby door and said to this unknown woman, “May I just say, ‘thank you’ for your kind gesture.’ My daughter recently died and…,” and just as before, this woman previously (and since then) unknown to me, stood up and asked if she could hug me, and said, as so many other angels have said, “I’m so sorry.” We looked at each other’s eyes, both of us misty, and said nothing else.” I wished her a good day.

There have been so many of these brief angel moments, most of them similar with the hand-to-heart, gasp of “I am so sorry” and the must-hug response. Deb had several of them in her favorite coffee haunts: Starbucks.  First, just days after Krissie died she was in line in a store not her usual, and the barista asked how her day was going. Deb, still so distraught but not wanting to explain just said “hard day”.  The barista paused, looked at her and asked, are you okay? Deb hesitantly began “my daughter died a few days ago….” Then somewhat to Deb’s surprise the lady was gone! It was but seconds before Deb realized she had walked around the counter and was putting her arms around her. In hindsight, Deb seems to think that the barista floated over the counter for it was so immediate.  Again, about a month ago Deb was in her favorite Starbucks close to our Monona office and saw one of the baristas she had not seen for a while and began chatting and learned that the barista had recently been appointed manager. As the short conversation ensured, Blaire, knowing Deb travels a bit, asked if she had been anywhere, or if anything special had been happening in her life.  Deb told her about Krissie having died a couple of months earlier and that was all it took. Blaire asked Deb if she could come around the counter and hug her. Yes indeed, you may, yes indeed.

This very morning in church, I had two male friends come up to me, ask genuinely how I was, both hugging me, one kissing me on the cheek.” A Sunday morning three months ago, just after Krissie’s death, I happened to be in church on a day I was scheduled to preach but was replaced by the friend who kissed me today. He spoke that day that he was pleasantly surprised to see me in church. I felt moved, bowed my head, and without any preparation was surrounded by no less than six or seven men who put their hands on me as David said a few words in my behalf from the pulpit. Angels aware, I guess.

Other angels aware came in the form of emails, cards, letters, and texts, but even there, there might have some who were “unaware” as occasionally, Deb or I would say to the other, “Who is this Kenny who sends his condolences” when we opened a card together. We don’t know Kenny.  He obviously knows us, as all angels know us all.

Thanks to all, aware and unaware.

Sharing Grief

You might know that my daughter, Krissie, died just a few weeks ago. Understandably, this event has had a rather profound effect on me, as well as others who knew Krissie, both family and friends. The effect on me, and of course on others, has been one of grief. These past six weeks has been extraordinary as I have been grieving…and sharing grief with others.

The blog I published just yesterday was on the I-You-Me theory I have discovered over the recent years, namely how people of different natures have different ways of establishing and maintaining relationships. Simply put, I find that there are three predominant ways that people “relate” one another, namely with what I have called “I-first” people, “You-first” people, and “We-first” people. (There are also some subsets of these basic three kinds of relating discussed in the previous blog.) I-first people begin a relationship on what they feel, think, and do; and then they tend to make statements about themselves. You-first people begin a relationship with what the other person thinks, feels, or does; and then they tend to ask questions of the other person. We-first people tend to wait until something happens in the relationship, whether one of words or actions as they look the find what they call a “connection” with the other person. I have admitted that I am an I-first person.

Sadness and Grieving

You may be aware that Deb and I wrote a book entitled The Positive Power of Sadness not long ago, which is a rendering of what we have come to believe is the most important, and the most love-based emotion in the human experience, namely sadness. We have come to believe that this love-based emotion comes about singularly when there has been a loss, specifically a loss of something that the person has loved. As we note in our book this loss can be of person, property, or idea. While most people think that the loss of a person is the most profound loss, people can feel just as much sadness when they lose property or an idea does not work as they hoped that it would. Deb and I continue to assist every one of our patients with facing the losses that they have experienced in life, and in so doing avoid the tendency to fall into the emotions of fear and anger or the condition of depression. So we know quite a bit about sadness, and frankly speaking, are pretty good at feeling sadness instead of anger and fear. Anger, by the way is the emotion that occurs when I have lost something in the past, and fear is the emotion that occurs when I consider that I might lose something in the future.

Our ongoing journey of grief

This has been a remarkable journey indeed, and it has been particularly remarkable one for me because I am the I-first person noted above and in my previous blog. Recall that I-first people tend to establish and maintain relationships with statements, usually statements about what they think, feel, or do. So, during these past six weeks I have done just that and have found something quite remarkable, and seemingly quite memorable. The remarkable thing about these weeks of grieving is how I have felt the value of the relationships I have established, mostly built upon people’s kindness, generosity, and selflessness as they have shared my grief, and very often Deb’s and my shared grief. I think I have found what We-first people seek all the time, namely the connection that two (or more) people can have when one person shares something with another person. In the case of this past few weeks, the sharing has been of our grief, but we have also had times of sharing joys with many people. This “connection” that We-people seem to know so much about has found its way into my soul. I am a changed person as a result. Let me tell you of some of the encounters over these past weeks, almost all of them in regards to someone hearing, feeling, or listening to me (us) regarding our loss:

  • The person at the counter at Starbucks, which is Deb’s most preferred brief hangout when she seeks her caffeine addiction. Deb happened to mention that she was “coping” when the barista simply asked, “How are you?” This led to this woman coming around the counter, hugging Deb and crying with but what has become the most treasured words, “Oh, I am so sorry.” Just sorry. Nothing more.
  • Many more of these encounters. Like the time, now about 3 weeks ago in my Madison office, after my first day back at work. It was the end of the day and I just locked my door and was walking towards the stairs when a pleasant older woman sitting in the waiting room brimmed a most pleasant smile and wished me a good night. I walked hallway down the stairs and then found I was compelled to return to the third floor. I did so, and said to the woman that I particularly appreciated her smile and greeting because the recent days had been hard as my daughter had died. She immediately got out of her chair, and asked if she could hug me. “Certainly,” I said.
  • The first day back at church, actually on the Sunday after Krissie had died when I was supposed to preach. The person who filled in for me that day mentioned that he was a bit surprised to see me there and mentioned my loss. Immediately, several people (all men, I believe), gathered around me as I found myself in tears.
  • Deb and I traveled “west” not knowing where we might go beyond “west” but we knew that we wanted to get to the source of the Mississippi River in northern Minnesota. We did what all people do in this sacred place: walked across the Mississippi River. We went back to the car after an hour or so at these waters, but were somehow compelled to return once more to this spot where the great river begins. Deb asked a young lady if she would be so kind to take our picture, and then noted that Krissie had died and we were scattering some of Krissie’s ashes at the source of the Mississippi. She did what so many people of her nature do at such times: her hand went immediately to her chest, she begin crying, and then hugged us. After the pictures she took of us scattering, crying, and the like, she said it had “been a great honor” to be of service.
  • Another such chance encounter happened closer to our cabin “up north” as we say in Wisconsin. We were on a trek to a falls that Krissie and her kids had taken with us a couple of times. Deb again happened to encounter a woman who asked how we were only to hear of our loss. Without missing a second, she turned to her friend and said, “Ashley, come over here, we’re going to pray.” Then she proceeded to hug us, together with her friend Ashley, and pray for us. Don’t know if I will ever see her again, but she is now is “connected” forever.
  • Many more such encounters with “strangers no more” while their names are not in my vocabulary.
  • Many moments of sharing with Krissie’s friends, particularly at the celebration of life in Bloomington where she lives.
  • I think I have received no less than 100 unsolicited hugs over these past weeks, maybe another 100 emails and more cards and letters. Each of them has been meaningful and helpful.
  • Of course, Deb and I have been “connected” all the more with each of us taking turns crying and holding one another.
  • Among other things remarkable is the fact that I have hugged my sun-in-law, Lamont, perhaps 50 times over these weeks, about 49 times more than I have ever hugged him.

Sharing Grief

It has been enlightening to have had these many experiences of connection, most with strangers, some with friends, and of course some with family. I am a changed person. Yet grieving, yet recovering. I am indebted to these many people, none of them true strangers, for their kindness. The experience has taught me, as I seem to continually be taught by many experiences in life, that there is value in shared grief. I say so to people, like a friend this very morning as we were having a cup of coffee together and heard from him how he “couldn’t imagine how it would be to lose a child” as his eyes welled up. I told him, as I told everyone who shared my grief, that it was helpful to be loved by his sharing this grief with me. I’m not sure that many people truly understand how grief is meant to be shared and how profitable it is to the grieved as well as consoler. It seems that people who are able and willing to this simple task of love have a good sense of who they are and hence can care, if for a moment, more about me than they do about themselves. I look to be more gracious in such things.

Just one brief note regarding the sharing of grief: some people are unable to actually share grief with others. This is because they have not finished their own grief. So when someone with unfinished grief encounters someone grieving, there is a mixture of feelings including a desire to avoid grief altogether and a kind of jealousy that the other person is grieving if place of the person being asked to share the grief. There is no shame in this inability to share grief, but it is impossible for such a person to genuinely love someone else in the other person’s grief when their grief is yet so unresolved.

I Walk A Little Slower Now

I walk a little slower now

My gate not up to speed

I step and step, but then I bow

My back like bread to knead

 

I stumble on a step or two

But find I cannot bear

This burden but for just a few

Seconds as I stare

 

I stare, I stare, I stare once more

As if I could but see

My daughter on another shore

Somewhere ahead of me.

 

I stare, I look, I carefully inspect

That shore I think I see

I look, I think, I feel and yet respect

For what must certainly be

 

I stare, I look, I think, I feel

My hope for this last claim.

But it’s enough for me to steal

A glance from God’s domain

Ron Johnson

8/31/19

 

 

Grace and Gratitude

Deb and I have a special procedure the very first moment of our entering out cabin “up north” as we say in Wisconsin: whoever is first in the cabin walks over to the light above a sign that simply reads “gratitude.”

Gratitude

 

We are grateful to have the cabin, grateful to come and to enjoy, grateful for the water, the fireplace, the Chinese checkers that we always play, and grateful for the front porch from which we watch boaters, swimmers, fishermen, and deer, the latter of which cross right in front of our cabin to the little cabin about 100 meters from our shore. These moments of gratitude are not limited to our times at the cabin. Sometimes, we simply sit outside, watch a sunset, talk about our work with people, read, or talk when one of us will say, “I don’t know what it is,” meaning that “I don’t know what it is that could make life better.” The other of us responds, “I can’t think of anything else.” Don’t get me wrong, we are very much people who don’t like things that happen, or don’t happen, and we get disappointed from time to time, and yet this feeling of gratitude seems to be an important hallmark of what we have. Some of what we have has come from other people, like people who taught us our trade. Some of what we have has come from things we worked hard to achieve, like our trade. And some of what we have has come seemingly straight from God, like our trade. But much more than our “trade” do we find the necessity that we feel gratitude.

I looked up the etymology of the word gratitude and found, not surprisingly, that it comes from the Latin word gratus, which means grace, namely (at least in this etymologist’s understanding) “the presence of God manifested in people through their virtues.” I’ll go with this definition.

I have heard the term “gratitude” coming from many sources over the recent years, a fact for which I am quite…grateful. I heard a personal trainer talking about good workout, good food, good living, and gratitude. So, I think that this whole business of appreciating what we have might just be nudging the narcissism out of the picture slowly but surely.

When we receive something, very often we don’t deserve it. Like love. I often tell my people, “You can’t really ask for love; you don’t deserve it; you can’t pay for it; and you certainly can’t demand it. However, you need it.” This is tough for a lot of people because they get lost in the “I don’t deserve it” or “I need it.” I think the whole package of these statements is important to take, not pieces. In fact, the receiving of something like love is often tough because it comes from someone’s act of grace.

Grace

I think it might actually be harder to receive than to give. Yes, we have heard platitudes like, “It is better to give than to receive,” and certainly this is true. But on the receiving side of someone’s grace, someone’s love, someone’s gift, we are often compelled to think that we deserve it, need to pay for it, or even reject it out of some kind of misplaced fear. My biblical understanding of this matter is that grace is “unmerited favor,” not unlike the definition of the Latin word gratus.

Deb and I are very grateful that we have the cabin and all else that we have. We also have the great privilege of giving the cabin to many people in our lives. It gives us great joy to hear from the many people who have used the cabin over the years that it is good for them, and in some circumstances their favorite place to go. We have a pontoon boat that Deb and I use maybe once a year out of an obligation to the boat, but most of the hours on the boat are used by our guests. We are grateful that we can grace friends and their families with the cabin and its six boats (two kayaks, rowboat, paddle boat, pontoon, and an inflatable canoe). It’s just fun to have people enjoy the cabin. We always hear of their appreciation, which is nice to hear, but more important is the fact that they have enjoyed this special place.

As wonderful as grace and gratitude are, there are counterfeits to both. A counterfeit is something that looks like the real thing but is not the real thing.

Counterfeits to gratitude

The primary counterfeit to gratitude is expecting that I deserve something. I don’t really think that we deserve anything, and that everything is in some way a gift by grace from someone of Someone. But more importantly, the expecting that someone should give me what I want speaks of early life deprivation, where I didn’t get the basic ingredients of life, or early life indulgence, where I got more than I needed by my demanding and my parents giving in to my demands. However my expecting came about, it is never helpful.

The other counterfeit to gratitude is saying or feeling “I don’t deserve it.” I would say, “Of course you don’t deserve it. This is grace, guy,” but I wouldn’t really say that; I’d just think it. The “I don’t deserve it” comes also from one of the two sources noted above: getting too little in early life or getting to much.” We all suffer from one or both of these maladies. It is much harder to simply admit that I don’t deserve it and then receive the “it,” whatever that might be, than to resist receiving someone’s grace. Furthermore, when I really receive something that I don’t deserve, especially when I really need it, it humbles me. Humility, by the way, can come from well-established self-esteem. But that’s another story.

Counterfeits to grace

There are three counterfeits to grace that I know of but the primary one is giving in. Giving in is not the same thing as giving. I give in when I do something or give something that I really don’t want to do or give because I am afraid of the consequences of not giving. The difference between giving, on the one hand, and giving in, is quite profound. Giving is grace, giving in is not. Giving is loving; giving in is not loving. When we give in to someone (or sometimes to something), we always expect something in return, which is the telltale mark that I have given in. I sometimes tell people, “You can give your money, fine; you can give your left arm, fine; you can give your life, fine; but if you give in, even a penny or a moment of your time, not fine. You are lying. Furthermore, you are looking gracious but you are not. You are actually selfish because you expect something in return.

Another counterfeit to grace is giving a little, usually giving with regret and resistance. In these circumstances you just want to get someone off your back, so you give as little as you can in order to avoid someone’s disapproval. When you give as little as you can give, both you and your recipient lose: you give more than you want, and h/she knows that you don’t want to give in the first place.

The third kind of counterfeit to grace is giving up. “OK, I’ll give you want you want” or “No way I’m going to give you a nickel.” Both of these are essentially harmful. Giving because you feel compelled to give is not good for you, and being angry at the person to whom you are giving is not good for you. And your “giving,” if we even call it that, is not good for the other person.

In sum: give all that you have but don’t give what you don’t have to give. This doesn’t mean that you never do what you don’t want to do or never give to someone who you don’t like. It is often good for us to give to someone who we don’t want to give to, and to do things that we don’t want to do. I just want you need to be honest in your giving.